College attainment and prosperity

At Michigan Future our goal for the state is high prosperity. A place, once again, with a broad middle class. A status we enjoyed for most of the 20th Century. But now have lost.

Prosperity is best measured by per capita income. What we have found is that with the exception of a few states that enjoy high per capita income because of high energy prices, the best predictor of whether a state is prosperous or not is the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more.

Preliminary 2013 per capita income for states is now available as is 2012 college attainment rates. So lets see if the alignment of the two remains as powerful as it has been in previous years. Below are the top 15 states in 2012 in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more and their rank in 2013 per capita income.

  1. Massachusetts 3rd in per capita income
  2. Colorado 16th
  3. Connecticut 1st
  4. Maryland 5th
  5. New Jersey 4th
  6. Vermont 19th
  7. Virginia 10th
  8. New  Hampshire 8th
  9. New York 6th
  10. Minnesota 11th
  11. Washington (state) 13th
  12. Illinois 15th
  13. Rhode Island 14th
  14. California 12th
  15. Utah 44th

As you can see there is quite an alignment. Of the top 15 states in four year degree attainment, 12 are in the top 15 in per capita income. And 14 are in the top 20. The only exception is Utah. The three states in the top 15 in per capita income with low four year degree attainment rate are North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska (the energy rich states).

So how does Michigan stack up? Not well. We are 36th in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more.  And we are 35th in per capita income.

And what about Indiana, the Great Lakes state that Lansing policy makers have identified as the state they want Michigan to be like? Even worse. They are 43rd in four year degree attainment and 38th in per capita income. Not exactly on the road to prosperity.

What matters most to returning Michigan back to a place with a broad middle class is clear. In a word talent, best measured by four year degree attainment. Michigan needs to make preparing, retaining and attracting talent its economic development priorities. Unless we do we are almost certainly going to continue to be one of America’s poorest states (along with Indiana). End of story!


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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